Artist of the day: Rec Center
It’s the elephant in the room, and Susie Ulrey doesn’t duck it.
“Not all of the songs are about M.S.,” said the singer of Tampa indie rock band Rec Center, who released their first full-length album, Tin Year, in May. “There are songs that are about no one, that I just wrote, that aren’t straight out of my diary.”
That said: “I gave a copy to my parents, and my mom said it sounded really melancholy,” said Ulrey, who was diagnosed with the disease in 2001. “I said, 'Well, how do you think I work through all this? I have to express it somehow.’ I think it’s helped me get some perspective, and I can work out some of the uglier side of dealing with the diagnosis. In that sense, it’s been extremely constructive and helpful for me to have that in my life. Otherwise, I’d probably be on a bunch of antidepressants.”
Tin Year was a long time coming for Rec Center, a band that has long been known — if not always active — around the Tampa Bay music scene. It’s a moody, introspective collection of songs, culled from more than a decade of songwriting, that took Rec Center two years to produce, due in no small part to Ulrey’s ongoing battle with multiple sclerosis.
“It’s been such an ebb and flow of really rough patches and really steady waters,” she said. “Every experience has brought a different feeling. It’s almost like grieving for someone, because you lose a part of yourself, and then you have to adapt and make it work another way.”
In the ’90s, Ulrey, 34, performed in the popular Central Florida bands The Maccabees and Pohgoh. Her co-leader in Rec Center, guitarist Michael Waksman, plays in Zillionaire with Ulrey’s husband Keith, who not only drums in Rec Center, but also runs Tampa label New Granada Records and the record store Microgroove, three blocks from their home in Seminole Heights.
The band’s evolution, and the release of a debut album, was inevitably hindered by Ulrey’s degenerative condition. Some of the album’s earliest songs were originally going to be for a solo release, but as the disease took hold, she turned to her good friend Waksman — who wrote four tracks on the album — to help compose and play them. Cellist Melissa Grady (Candy Bars) and bassist Brian Roberts later came on board, and the five members of Rec Center fleshed out each arrangement as a collective.
A good example: Opening track, Monster In Your Heart, which Ulrey began writing shortly after her diagnosis. She composed it on guitar, but as her hands lost dexterity, she could no longer play it live. It was Keith who had the idea to transpose the arrangement to keyboards. The version that ended up on Tin Year is a chilling cloud of piano-based gloom in the vein of The National or Cat Power.
“It’s kind of a benchmark for me as a songwriter,” Ulrey said. “We wanted it to have that kind of low, booming sound that goes throughout the length of the song, kind of foreboding and scary-sounding. But then the message of the song is pretty hopeful.”
The album’s title, Tin Year, carries multiple meanings. It’s been more than 10 years since Ulrey’s diagnosis, for one thing. Some of the songs are 10 years old, yet had never been recorded. And the album itself started as a 10-year anniversary gift between Keith and Susie. (The traditional gift on one’s 10th anniversary? Tin.)
Rec Center performs infrequently around Tampa, though they have played the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, three times. They will mark Tin Year’s release with a show on Friday at New World Brewery, then perhaps a short tour around the Southeast. Navigating cramped rock clubs isn’t easy for Ulrey, but she’s looking forward to getting her music out there, and having as many people hear it as possible.
Which goes back to the original elephant in the room — multiple sclerosis — and why she’s not afraid to address it.
“I’ve been dealing with this saddle on my back for the past 11 years,” she said. “If it’s going to get me a little more publicity, I’m going to take that for what it’s worth. Whether it’s good or bad, I don’t mind playing that card.”
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*. Photo: Kelley Jackson